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At the tender age of 41, legendary Mike Watt keeps the faith as he contemplates a career as one of punk rock's founding fathers. wattportrait.jpg (14654 bytes)

Contemplating Mike Watt

by Tim McMahan


"We're playing a lot of stuff that's really influenced us, like Television, Wire, we even did Maggot Brain, as well as some old Minutemen and fIREHOSE stuff, whatever people in the crowd asked for." Punk rock founding father Mike Watt has no plans to slow down his attack on mainstream music culture anytime soon.

At 41, the man who, along with D. Boon and George Hurley, formed the seminal punk hard core outfit, the Minutemen, is still doing his damnedest to keep the punk flag flying for himself and for the next generation. Just like he did 27 years ago.

Watt talked about his music and career via phone interview as he waited to set up for yet another in a long tour of shows, this time in Louisville, Kentucky, the night after playing for more than two hours to a club filled of screaming Detroit fans

"This is the last time out for the opera," Watt says, "so after we finished performing that, we played about 20 more songs, and people still wanted to hear more, so we just kept playing and playing. We're playing a lot of stuff that's really influenced us, like Television, Wire, we even did Maggot Brain, as well as some old Minutemen and fIREHOSE stuff, whatever people in the crowd asked for."

Opera? Yup, you read correctly. Watt's last CD, "Contemplating the Engine Room" on Columbia, is a concept album about three guys in the engine room of a boat. Each song on the album represents one part of the day, starting before dawn and ending 24 hours later. The entire "opera" is a metaphor about the Minutemen and D. Boon, as well as Watt's father, who was in the Navy during Viet Nam. Add to all that a touch of Richard McKenna's "The Sand Pebbles," and you've got a unique blend of memories from a bygone era, straight from the heart of Watt's own private world.

The music is a potent blend of swampy rock, trippy long-running grooves and hard-boiled rockers, all woven around Watt's gravelly, deep Tom Waits-style vocals. The strange, bass-driven opera has a turbulent cohesiveness (helped along with countless nautical references).

Watt says he came up with the CD's concept while touring as bassist for Perry Farrell's Porno for Pyros. He says he finally realized that he could put something together that was thoroughly different, yet that could act as an honest tribute to two of the most important people who've touched his life.

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"I'm in my 40s now, and I knew I was ready to write a piece about my father that was really different and significant, not some sort of Potsy, Fonzie, Happy Days sort of thing," he said. "When we play the opera at a show, we string all the songs together as one piece. And unlike a rock show that ends in some kind of huge finale, the set sort of just goes on -- dreamy, quietly --- because it represents the ending of a day."

At times rocking, and at other times, just plain strange, there's nothing quite like "Contemplating…" on the shelves of your local music store. But it's that unbridled willingness to create something different that's been a hallmark of Watt's career since he and D. Boon formed the Minuteman in 1980 in the port city of San Pedro, California.

"D Boon's mom taught me how to play bass," Watt said. "When we first started playing together, we tried to cover the big rock songs, like 'American Woman' and 'Black Dog.' Then we saw these punkers one night in LA, and they couldn't even play their instruments. Some of them weren't even musicians; they were artists, but it didn't matter. Right then we knew that we could do our own thing and not have to play the other stuff."

Watt talks excitedly -- at about a thousand words a minute -- as he reminisces about the old days when the Minutemen were developing their style. "We toured all the time, and we recorded an album about every six months," he said. "That's what it was about, playing for whomever would listen and creating new stuff."

It was a ripe time for punk rock. Though they were forging an angry new path with some of their most influential music, such as "Buzz or Howl Under the Influence of Heat" and "What Makes a Man Start Fires," they weren't alone. Other acts also were changing the course of modern American punk music, including Husker Du, Bad Brains, REM, Sonic Youth and the Meat Puppets.

"It was an exciting time," Watt said. "We weren't trying to copy each other or out-do each to become rock stars. We watched, listened and kept track to see what new ideas each of us had and what directions we were going. Seeing Husker Du perform 'Zen Arcade' pushed us to do our own a double album, 'Double Nickels on a Dime.' And it's still probably the best thing I've ever done. But there's still a better record inside of me."

The good times were shortlived, however. Just as the Minutemen were beginning to push their sound to new heights in late 1985, guitarist/vocalist D. Boon was tragically killed in an auto accident. Watt and Hurley went on to form fIREHOSE and stayed together throughout the '80s and early '90s. Watt released his first solo album, "Ball-Hog Or Tugboat?" in 1995. And despite keeping the punk fires burning all these years, Watt says things will never be like they were with the Minutemen. "It's different because I don't have D. Boon anymore," he says. "It'll never be like that again."

That's not all that's changed since the Watt/Boon years. Though he goes out of his way not to be negative, Watt can't help but be a frustrated at today's music scene and how so many bands are content with putting out product that conforms to the status quo. It's all quite alien to a guy who fought for years just to have his music heard.

"When we were starting, there were places that wouldn't even let D. Boon on stage because they thought he didn't look like a guy in a band. But we loved that, because we knew we were different and we wanted to show them what we were about. Our music was about rebelling against what was going on. Today, these bands just go out there and do the same thing over and over again every night, with the same cookie-cutter sound. 'Alternative music' today is what New Wave was to punk back then - it's the safe, acceptable punk music for the masses. It's sad."

Sad, but not hopeless. Watt says the music scene can still capture the energy it had when he first picked up a bass. "Yeah, I think we can we go back to where we were, but I don't know how," he said. "That's one of the reasons why I'm still out here. I think that maybe I can still contribute something and maybe get these kids to do their own thing, whether it's a crazy opera or whatever."

So how much gas does Watt have left in his tank? I mentioned that 38-year-old Bob Mould, one of the founders of Husker Du, recently announced his current tour with an electric band would be his last. Would Watt take the same path?

"Hell no," he said. "I've still got a lot of stuff I want to do and a lot of projects to complete, including a new album. I don't think Bob's quitting altogether, he's just doing an acoustic thing. We don't play nearly as loud as he does. And we set our speakers on their sides, so we're not getting blasted all night.

"So far, we've played 52 shows in 55 nights straight, and I feel great. I think I'm in the best shape of my life. The trick is to watch what you eat and your chemical intake, as well as keep track of your mind. You know, every night it's something different, and playing the opera keeps it fresh.

"Yeah, I feel like I'm racing the clock sometimes, but I'm not stopping because there's still a lot left to do."


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Originally printed in The Reader October 29, 1998.

Copyright 1998 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.


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"We saw these punkers one night in LA, and they couldn't even play their instruments. Some of them weren't even musicians; they were artists, but it didn't matter. Right then we knew that we could do our own thing and not have to play the other stuff."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"I think that maybe I can still contribute something and maybe get these kids to do their own thing, whether it's a crazy opera or whatever."